Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My favorite books of 2015

I typically read over 100 books a year. (I actually have a Word file, started in September 1991, listing every book I've read to completion -- title and author.) I would probably read more, but I am a very picky reader, who avoids books filled with violence or books most would describe as depressing or with the words "poignant," "tragic," "heart-wrenching," "heartbreaking," "triumphant," or "dark" anywhere on the jacket.

So actually selecting and finishing a book is high praise. And to make my annual "Best Books" or "Favorite Reads" list a book has to have not only an interesting (not totally predictable) plot or story but be well written (and researched, if nonfiction), have characters I can relate to (or don't hate), and a certain je ne sais quoi.

Herewith, my list of the dozen books I most enjoyed reading this past year, listed alphabetically by author. (And if you want to see all the books I read and liked this past year, and other years, check out my previous Book Nook posts.)

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block. Mystery. This was my first Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery, the eleventh in the series, but it will not be my last. Indeed, I appreciated that you didn't have to have read any of the 10 previous books to understand or appreciate The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons.

For those unfamiliar with the series, the protagonist is a "gentleman burglar" (think Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but not as good looking), with an eye for antiques and art, who runs a used bookstore. His best friend and confidant is a lesbian who runs the pet store down the block. This installment opens with Rhodenbarr filching F. Scott Fitzgerald's original manuscript for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" from the bowels of a museum at the behest of a "Mr. Smith." Soon after, he is asked by a cop of his acquaintance to help him solve a burglary/murder on the Upper East Side. Could the two be connected? Read the book, which is a quick, entertaining read, to find out!

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron. Fiction. A mystery with a sense of humor and a touch of metaphysics and romance. If I had to pick one word to describe this book, or it's protagonist, it would be wry, a good thing in my book. (There are not enough wry books out there, IMHO.)

The protagonist is former Michigan college football star Ruddy McCann, who goes from a promising career in the NFL to a not-so-promising career repossessing cars in and around his small hometown in Michigan, due to a cruel twist of fate. If things weren't bad, or weird, enough, Ruddy starts hearing the voice of a (deceased) real estate agent in his head, falls in love with the girlfriend of an arch rival, and stumbles upon an unsolved murder. Full of fun, quirky characters, humor, and warmth, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man is a story of murder, romance, and second chances. Highly recommend.

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave. Fiction. It's a romance/finding yourself/about-the-importance-of-family novel set in Sonoma County, and I loved it. Couldn't put it down. It starts off as the story of a runaway bride who, discovering her fiancé has been keeping something big from her, drives all night from LA to the safety and security of her family's vineyard in Sonoma County. However, she arrives home only to find things aren't so perfect there either -- and discovers that sometimes what you think you want you don't really want. Full of wit and wisdom, laughter and heartache, Eight Hundred Grapes is a perfect escapist (?) read.

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. Nonfiction. I love books about the history and evolution of language. Or maybe I should say (or write), I love interesting, entertaining, well-written books about the history and evolution of language. (There are plenty of pedantic, boring books about language and grammar out there.) And Gaston Dorren's new book, Lingo, definitely falls into the entertaining category.

As the (American English) subtitle suggests, the author looks at 60 different languages found in and around Europe, sharing anecdotes about their similarities and differences and speakers. My only regrets are that the chapters often felt too short (just scratching the surface) -- and Dorren does not include American English (or British English) pronunciations of foreign words (e.g., Welsh) or maps showing readers where the language under discussion is spoken, both of which would have been very helpful.

That all said, if you are fascinated by linguistics (as I am), or are just curious about language, or have ever wondered why there are so many different languages in Europe, definitely pick up a copy of Lingo.

Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow. Fiction. A beautifully written tale of young love and (non-creepy) obsession, set in the Hamptons, Paris, Provence, and New York City. If you've ever been in love (or lust) with someone seemingly unobtainable, who keeps popping into (and then out of) your life, or had a first love you've never forgotten, you will relate to and (probably) appreciate this book. (Neither was the case for me, but I was good friends with two young women who greatly reminded me of the "girl" in question in Dubow's novel, and, like the author, grew up in New York City and spent many summers in East Hampton and Amagansett. So the book was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me.)

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Deception And Intrigue by Piu Marie Eatwell. Nonfiction. This tale would have made for a good Sherlock Holmes novel -- except that it is a true story. It begins in 1898 when a woman goes to court in England claiming that her deceased father-in-law, a successful merchant, was, in reality, the much wealthier 5th Duke of Portland. The author, who has clearly done her research, then recounts the infamous trials that followed and takes readers through to the present day to find the truth about the dead duke, his secret wife, and the missing corpse. If you enjoy a good mystery, especially one filled with real-life characters, check out this book.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. Fiction. If I had to pick one adjective to describe this book it would be charming. A tale of love and friendships lost (the main character's name is Monsieur Perdu, Mr. Lost in English) and found, The Little Paris Bookshop is the perfect book to read on a chilly winter's evening, or when you just want to curl up a book that takes you thousands of miles away. I enjoyed the story, about two men's journeys of self discovery (literally and figuratively) that begins in Paris and wends it way to the south of France. However, IMHO, the book should have been titled The Literary Apothecary, for reasons you will understand if or when you read the book. (Though the original German title, something like The Lilac Room, was worse.)

The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister. Fiction. A tale of magic, mystery, murder, and illusion set in the turn-of-the-century (1890s to early 1900s) Midwest. The magician of the title is a young woman with the stage name of the Amazing Arden. Her lie, if she is, in fact, lying? Read the book to find out. Beautifully written -- dare I say, spellbinding? I couldn't put this book down. (Reviewers have compared The Magician's Lie to Water for Elephants and The Night Circus. As I have read neither, I couldn't say. I just know I really liked this book.) If you are into books about magic or magicians, as I am, or just want an interesting read, pick it up.

Yes, My Accent Is Real (And Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You) by Kunal Nayyar. Memoir. Two things to know about me: I don't like most memoirs (too self-indulgent), and I am not a fan of The Big Bang Theory (the television show in which Nayyar appears), though I have seen several episodes. In fact, the only reason I picked the book up was that I saw Nayyar talking about the book on some morning show. And something about him, or what he said (I don't remember now), made me want to read his book. And I'm glad I did.

Yes, My Accent Is Real is a collection of humorous, autobiographical essays (even the titles of each chapter, or essay, are funny), spanning from Nayyar's childhood in India, to his time as a college student in the United States, in Oregon, and his nascent acting career, to getting the role of Raj on The Big Bang Theory and getting married to a former Miss India. And you don't have to have watched The Big Bang Theory to enjoy the book. You just have to have a sense of humor and appreciate what it must be like for someone from a difficult culture to be plopped down at a big American university and try to make his way t/here.

Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back by Janice P. Nimura. Nonfiction. The fascinating, real-life story of three (originally five) young Japanese women, all the daughters of samurai (or former samurai), who were sent by the emperor of Japan to the United States for 10 years in 1871, in order to become educated and learn Western ways -- and then return to Japan and educate other women and children. Well researched and well written, the story takes you from the opening of Japan to the West (the Meiji period) to San Francisco and across the United States to Washington, D.C., and the Northeast and then back to Japan a dozen years later. I had never heard of these young women, who were all remarkable, and was delighted to have stumbled upon this book. A must read.

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. Memoir. Lovely, lovely book about shepherding (i.e., sheep farming) in England's Lake District. Rebanks is a marvelous writer. His prose makes you feel as though you are there with him in the English countryside, tending his flocks, over the course of four seasons. And while sheep farming may not sound very glamorous (it isn't) or interesting, learning about life on the fells (hills and mountains) of the Lake District and the life of a typical shepherding family -- a very hard life, not for the faint of heart, or health, or for those who like a secure source of income -- is fascinating. Indeed, it's a life that Rebanks, probably the only shepherd to graduate from Oxford, says he would not trade for any other (nor would many of his neighbors). A gem of a book.

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino. Memoir. Elaine Sciolino, the former Paris Bureau Chief for The New York Times, is a terrific writer -- and journalist. And as the spouse and teenager and I were about to embark on our semi-annual Thanksgiving trip to Paris (to see my mother), I thought it would be fun to read Sciolino's book about her Paris neighborhood. And I was right.

Sciolino introduces readers to the life-blood of this Parisian neighborhood in the 9th Arrondissement, the  people who work and live there, and her anecdotes are filled with humor and compassion. In fact, I was so taken with the street from Sciolino's stories and descriptions, I insisted we spend an afternoon perusing it from top to bottom. (And afterward wished we hadn't as it was nothing like the rue des Martyrs she so lovingly and vividly described in her book.) Still, I highly recommend this memoir for Paris lovers, those who like travel books, and history and food buffs. (There are a lot of good food stories in the book as well as charming descriptions of the street's racier past.)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Time to break out the Hanukkah music!

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights (aka Christmas for Jews), begins this Sunday, December 6th, at sundown. Sadly, all the great Jewish composers were too busy writing Christmas songs to come up with anything really good for Hanukkah (or Chanukah). So we have had to content ourselves with "Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah," or "Oy Chanukah" in the original Yiddish. (Oy Chanukah, indeed. Eight nights of gift giving and eating greasy food? Whose great idea was that?)

On the bright side (hey, this is the festival of light), over the years, a number of singers have taken it upon themselves to, if not create a new, original Hanukkah song (I refuse to acknowledge Adam Sandler's contribution, though I guess I just did), to create entertaining Hanukkah song parodies, which, in my opinion, are way better.

Herewith, my two picks for the best Hanukkah song parody of 2015 -- which you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy.

First up, The Maccabeats singing "Latke Recipe" (to the tune of "Shut up and Dance"):

Next, Rachel Bloom's Chanukah sendup of "Santa Baby," titled "Chanukah Honey," which I love.

Chag sameach!